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HyperCard Confabulation

I appear to have opened an intellectual can of worms in TidBITS-102 with my comparison of HyperCard and QuickTime and my statement that HyperCard was, in some respects, a commercial failure. That article provoked an extremely interesting and enlightening discussion with Kevin Calhoun, who was Apple’s lead engineer for HyperCard 2.0 and 2.1, and with Mike Holm, who has been the HyperCard Product Manager since 1987.

I have received several other lengthy editorials on the subject of HyperCard and its success, and I’m pleased to announce that we will be putting together a special HyperCard retrospective issue to be released this summer when HyperCard celebrates its fifth birthday. That issue will explore what HyperCard truly is, where it has come from, where it is going, how it has succeeded and how it has failed, and in the same way that HyperCard itself has appealed to numerous different types of people, the issue will feature opinions from the famous and the not-yet-famous alike. However, you’ll have to wait until this summer for that issue, and Kevin asked that I publish his reply to my controversial statements right away since he feels HyperCard is just starting to come into its own now.

Kevin Calhoun writes…

In TidBITS #102, you write that Voyager’s Expanded Books are "one of the few commercial programs to use HyperCard." In my view, this is the kind of observation that can only be made by a person who’s not paying attention! Let me point out some products that you’ve so far failed to notice.

ABC News Interactive offers more than half a dozen interactive videodiscs titles with HyperCard-based software. Warner New Media now has four titles in their series of Audio Notes, with the latest, "The Orchestra," released just last week. There are thirteen titles in Voyager’s Video Companion series, four in their CD Companion Series, and three in their brand new series of Expanded Books. Stackware offerings are the cream of the crop among the CD-ROM products for Macintosh, with titles such as "Exotic Japan," "Baseball’s Greatest Hits," "Anatomist," "Cosmic Osmo," and "The Manhole", in addition to the various series of CD-ROM offerings I’ve already mentioned.

Momentum behind these products appears to be building. Over the last six months, Voyager has released 14 new products; 11 of them are based on HyperCard. At the Macworld Exposition recently held in San Francisco, they sold out of their complete stock of two of their Expanded Books, 1000 copies of each in less than four days. They already have plans for dozens of additional titles for the series.

The biggest names in the industry – Microsoft, Claris, Lotus, and Apple – all provide online help in the form of HyperCard stacks. Yes, that’s right: Microsoft Excel, Lotus 1-2-3 Macintosh, ClarisWorks, and Apple System Software 7, among others, are all products that use HyperCard.

And, of course, there are the dozens and dozens of high-quality non-commercial stacks that have been developed by university professors, corporate training departments, hobbyists, etc., and that cover a remarkably broad range of topics, from vegetarian recipes to Renault auto parts.

Most of the earliest software that includes QuickTime-based content has been developed in HyperCard, including "Baseball’s Greatest Hits" and Apple’s own "Apple Intro News." And by the way, this is a phenomenon that has occurred over and over again: whenever new multimedia capabilities become available to Macintosh, such as sound input, control of external video sources, and now QuickTime, they are often applied effectively for the first time within HyperCard stackware.

Elsewhere in TidBITS #102, you write, "Because there’s no market around HyperCard, it’s languishing at Claris and everyone is sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it." I think you should look again. Ask Nikki Yokokura, author of "Exotic Japan," if she is just "sitting around." Or ask Steve Riggins, chief propeller-head at Voyager, if he’s still "trying to figure out what to do" with HyperCard. In my view, HyperCard is already one of the most useful and most widely used electronic publishing tools yet devised, and it has spawned a healthy number of impressive commercial products.

In your comparison of QuickTime and HyperCard, you write, "QuickTime is like HyperCard." This is not the case. QuickTime is a technology that will be incorporated into applications by software developers; HyperCard is a development tool that allows people like you and me to become software developers, so that we can apply technologies like QuickTime in ways of our own.

Mike Holm adds…

Kevin, good volley on the TidBITS article. There is a market around HyperCard, not only of products like those from Voyager or other interactive media publishers, but development tools as well. Just ask Ray Heizer or some others. We added a ten page supplement of new and updated products to the HyperCard Resource Guide handed out at Macworld. The thing to understand is that the overall market for development tools on the Mac is small to begin with, and HyperCard is perhaps the biggest fish in that small pond. The other thing to keep in mind is that HyperCard increased by a factor of four or five the number of people creating software on Macs over the last four years. This is a non-trivial number (low six figures), and one that IBM, Sun, and Microsoft all envy.

Kevin adds…

I restricted my comments about commercial stackware to just the one category of content-based software because that happens to be the category that interests me most and because it has recently begun to grow at a remarkable rate. I left out such things as Danny Goodman’s new product, Connections, which had a very good review locally in the San Jose Mercury News. Perhaps it would be valuable to gather a list of all currently available commercial HyperCard-based products from TidBITS readers.

By the way, I object very strongly to the bias that software content is inherently less valuable than software functionality. This bias is reflected by the present lack of balance in the software market, which is full of whiz-bang file compression utilities but still short on engaging software content.

I like to think of things this way: a laserdisc or a videotape is software that contains a movie. An audio CD is software that contains music. The Oxford English Dictionary is now contained in software, after all these years, as is the full collection of the Louvre. When a large software library that contains such things becomes cheaply and conveniently available for Macintosh in a compelling interactive form, together with additional digital amenities, will today’s critics of HyperCard tell us that they won’t be happy until the library also includes a sufficient number of best-selling tools for toggling their bundle bits?

As for me, I think that content is the future of software. I’m looking forward to the day when there are software houses as large and high-rolling as yesterday’s movie studios, with pomp and prestige and high production values, that turn out the equivalents of "Citizen Kane" and Tristram Shandy and "The Civil War" for software.

And Adam replies… — You both make some good points here, especially about a field that I have been unable to watch due to lack of a CD-ROM drive. I think in part what I was getting at is that HyperCard is an incredible and flexible tool, but the primary stacks that have succeeded in the market are those that provide information, as do most of the examples. Of all people, I certainly cannot denigrate software content – after all, what is TidBITS but content? – but at the same time, we must recognize that both content and functionality have their place. I suspect that some of the tension here arises from the price differential – Microsoft can charge $495 for Word 5.0, but Voyager only charges $19.95 for their Expanded Book version of Douglas Adams’s entire four book Hitchhikers Trilogy, a literary feat which took him a heck of a lot longer to put together.

Please also note that I have never implied that HyperCard as a product is a failure; merely that the type of commercial market that was anticipated by some after the initial release has not materialized. My fear is more that without the support of a commercial market (which perhaps Voyager and the others are providing in this respect) and with the confusing marketing policies surrounding it, HyperCard may cease to be a development platform of choice for the individual or may even disappear entirely, which I feel would be a tragic loss to Macintosh users, and even more broadly, to the entire computer community.

Maybe some of my worry about HyperCard relates to the trouble Apple had defining it early on; the term "software erector set" comes to mind. I imagined using that erector set to build castles, forts, bridges, and Rube Goldberg machines, but all that I see surviving on the commercial market are plain houses, albeit extremely nicely designed ones with interesting furnishings, if I’m not stretching my allusion too far. However, in the course of this discussion, I’ve come to realize that HyperCard’s developers have always seen HyperCard as a tool for the individual (not as competition for MPW C) and as a launchpad for electronic publishing, one that I certainly took advantage of with the first 99 issues of TidBITS. My feelings that HyperCard had failed stem in this case from inappropriate expectations, supported as they may have been by mediocre marketing, and in fact from mistakes I made with that original TidBITS stack considering my means of distribution.

HyperCard and QuickTime — I think my perhaps-too-subtle comparison of QuickTime and HyperCard wasn’t sufficiently explained. I see them both as technologies that Apple created, developed, and marketed, albeit in different ways. Obviously HyperCard is a tool while QuickTime is an extension to the system, but my point was that if run-time read-and-link-only HyperCard had been created and marketed as a system extension, then the same sort of market that has sprung up around QuickTime would have sprung up around HyperCard, perhaps encouraging some of the more varied uses of HyperCard that haven’t appeared or survived in the commercial market while not restricting the information publishers in any way.

HyperCard and Claris — Finally, my statement, "Because there’s no market around HyperCard, it’s languishing at Claris and everyone is sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it," was poorly written, which accounts for the answer Kevin gave above. Users and developers have absolutely no trouble figuring out what do with HyperCard; just look at the gigabytes of stacks available as freeware or shareware. I should have said "and everyone there [at Claris] is sitting around trying to figure out what to do with it." I’ve heard rumors that the HyperCard team was facing some internal difficulties that were slowing development on 3.0, and it’s obvious from the confusing upgrades and developers’ kits and hardware bundles that the marketing folks are having trouble positioning HyperCard effectively. Something must be done, either internally between Apple and Claris, or through the creation of a free HyperCard Engine, to ensure that everyone can always use these stacks.

My sincere thanks to Kevin and Mike for participating and for providing such fascinating material for TidBITS. I’m sure that many of you will have immediate reactions to the opinions here, and if you wish to write a coherently-argued article supporting your opinions, send it to me and I’ll consider it for inclusion in our HyperCard retrospective issue (but I can’t guarantee I’ll publish everything).

Information from:
Kevin Calhoun — [email protected]
Mike Holm — [email protected]
Adam C. Engst, TidBITS Editor — [email protected]

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